Imposter syndrome hitting high-achieving students: ‘I feel like it was a fluke’

When Sharon Lee started university in 2013, she was accompanied by a sense of unease: a niggling feeling she just couldn’t get rid of. She compares it to the concern you feel when you leave the house and can’t remember if you turned off the stove. You walk through the paces that got you out the door, convinced you switched everything off. And yet, the troublesome feeling persists.

“It’s sort of the same thing here,” Lee says, referring to her experience at university. “I know I worked hard to get into my program and I know the teachers wouldn’t just let me in … I wasn’t lucky to get in and I worked to get where I am.

“But I can’t help but feel like it was a fluke.”

The feeling crept in following high school, where Lee completed the International Baccalaureate program. As she transitioned to university, she lost confidence in her abilities. Seven years on, if she does well on an assignment, she still figures she got lucky that day.

She also finds herself sizing up her peers and wondering how she landed among so many bright students.

Lee is not alone. That “niggling feeling” is better known as imposter syndrome and it’s affecting enough undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Alberta that counsellors are holding workshops to help them manage it.

“I would say imposter syndrome is thoughts and feelings that then lead to behaviors,” mental health consultant Rachel Greenley said.

“It’s not mental illness by any means but it is a collection of symptoms that can really contribute to negative functioning, a decline in people’s abilities to perform.”

Greenley says imposter syndrome can manifest in mood disorders, anxiety and isolation. Numerous factors can contribute to it, including high achievement, comparison and perfectionism.

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